Products Liability Law: Explaining the McDonald’s coffee case
Many people have heard about the elderly woman who got almost three million dollars for burning herself when she spilled a cup of coffee she got at a McDonald’s drive thru. Perhaps when you heard about that verdict you thought to yourself, “there ought to be a law.” In fact, when you are injured by a product there is a body or set of laws that governs whether or not you are entitled to compensation. That body of laws is known as products liability. Products liability law covers things as complex as your automobile as well as things as simple as the cup of coffee you buy at the local fast food restaurant. Although the lady in the McDonald’s coffee case never actually received the almost three million the jury awarded her because the judge reduced the verdict, the case is a good example of how products liability law protects consumers.
What was the Jury thinking?
The McDonald’s coffee case began when a 79-year-old woman went with her son to a McDonald’s drive thru and ordered a cup of hot coffee. The woman, a passenger in the vehicle, put the coffee between her legs and was attempting to remove the lid when the spill occurred. How hot was the coffee? The evidence at trial indicated that it was 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit when served and that it was between 165 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit when it was spilled. The evidence also showed that the coffee you make at home is usually about 135-140 degrees Fahrenheit. In a matter of six to seven seconds the spilled coffee caused third degree burns to the woman’s inner thighs and buttocks. She claimed to have approximately $10,000.00 in medical costs, including the costs associated with the debridement and skin grafting necessitated by the injury. She also claimed to have permanent scarring as a result of the injury.
Under products liability law, the jury is asked to consider the same types of questions you might be asking yourself at this point: Did McDonald’s know the coffee was that hot? Did McDonald’s know that coffee served that hot could cause serious burns to people who might spill it? If McDonald’s did know that coffee served that hot could cause serious burns why did they continue to serve it so hot? Can people really drink coffee that is that hot? Do all restaurants serve coffee that is that hot? Doesn’t the lady who got burned bear any responsibility for what happened?
The jury in this case decided that the coffee was a defective product and that McDonald’s had breached implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose. The jury also decided that the lady did bear some responsibility for what had happened. The jury said that she was twenty percent at fault and that McDonald’s was eighty percent at fault for the injury. The jury awarded her $200,000.00 in compensatory damages (to compensate her for past and future pain, suffering, emotional distress, lost wages, medical bills, etc) and $2,700,000.00 in punitive damages. The award of compensatory damages was reduced by the plaintiff’s twenty percent of fault. The judge reduced the award of punitive damages to $480,000.00 or three times the compensatory damage award. The case settled for an undisclosed amount before it was appealed.
As you can imagine, the question central to any product liability case is whether the product is in fact defective. A product can be defective in a number of ways. If a product is marketed with inadequate instructions or warnings as to foreseeable risks, it is defective. If a product is manufactured with a flaw, but the design and marketing of the product are fine, it is called a manufacturing defect. If a product is designed in such way that it is foreseeable that injury could result, and if the risk of injury could have been reduced by an alternative design, then a product is said to be defective in its design. When looking at alternative designs, the court will look at the costs associated with the alternative designs, whether the proposed alternative would in fact have reduced the foreseeable risks of harm associated with the product, and whether the failure to use the alternative design made the product unreasonably unsafe at the time it was manufactured. If a product is defective in the way that it marketed, manufactured, or designed, and someone is injured as a result of that defect, then the manufacturer, distributor and/or seller of the product are usually liable, or responsible for consequences of the defect.
As noted above, the jury found that McDonald’s had sold a defective product and had also breached implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose. A warranty is like a promise. An implied warranty is something that exists whether or not you have a piece of paper titled “Warranty”. An implied warranty of merchantability means that the goods sold conform to the ordinary standards of care and that they are of average grade, quality and value as similar goods sold under similar circumstances. Put more simply, when you buy a cup of coffee at McDonald’s, you have a right to expect that it will be pretty much the same as the coffee you could buy at any similar drive thru. An implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose exists when the retailer, distributor, or manufacturer has reason to know the particular purpose for which the consumer goods are required, and that the buyer is relying on the skill and judgment of the seller to select and furnish suit able goods. In the case of coffee purchased at its drive thru, McDonald’s would know that the buyer of the coffee wanted to drink it and that the buyer is relying on McDonald’s to sell coffee that the buyer can drink. When the McDonald’s employee hands the customer the cup of coffee, it is as if McDonald’s is saying, “I promise this coffee is drinkable and that the cup it is served in is suit able.” If the warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose are breached, or the promise is broken, then the manufacturer, distributor, and/or seller of the product are liable or responsible for the consequences.
While the wording of breach of warranty and product liability theory is somewhat different, the underlying goal is the same. The idea or theory behind the courts imposing liability for product defects is not just to compensate a victim. It is also to provide an incentive to manufacturers, distributors, and sellers of products to ensure that products put into the hands of consumers meet consumer expectations and that they are reasonably safe for their intended purpose. The law is not meant to punish a manufacturer, distributor or seller, that is the purpose of punitive damages. Rather it is meant to distribute the burden of injuries to those in the best position to prevent the injury and also to shift the financial burden to those in the best position to handle the financial problems that attend injuries. It is expected and accepted that the higher costs associated with avoiding and/or paying for injuries will be passed on to the consumer in the form of higher prices for products.
In the McDonald’s coffee case, the plaintiff claimed that McDonald’s knew that its coffee was being served too hot and had in fact received hundreds of complaints about how hot its coffee was. Moreover, the plaintiff argued that the coffee was served at a temperature 40-50 degrees hotter than recommended. The plaintiff claimed that despite this knowledge, McDonald’s continued to serve coffee hot enough to cause third degree burns. Is coffee served hot enough to cause third degree burns not fit to drink? Do other drive-throughs serve coffee at a lower temperature? Is coffee served that hot defective? The jury in the McDonald’s case answered “yes”.
The law of products liability is complex and states differ in the degree to which they are willing to hold a defendant accountable for an injury caused by its product. Even in the case of a product as simple as a cup of coffee, states may vary widely in their willingness to find liability for injuries resulting from spills. Many courts do not accept the notion that a cup of hot coffee is defective by virtue of its excessive temperature. Those courts require the injured person to show evidence that the coffee was served hotter than accepted industry standards or that it was hotter than the purchaser could reasonably expect. The courts of many states feel that the danger of a hot beverage is obvious and that it is not something a vendor should have to warn customers about. Others courts look to the manner in which the spill occurred on the theory that it is unrealistic to expect a vendor to make a cup of coffee completely spill proof no matter how the cup is handled. Given such differences in the way courts look at issues of liability, if you are injured by a product you should consult an attorney with experience in handling products liability cases in your state.